In what is perhaps an attempt to revive a GOP presidential campaign that many voters have forgotten about, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is increasing rhetoric about government surveillance, an issue that has made him popular among civil libertarians in the past. The Republican hopeful is also doubling down on condemnations of businessman Donald Trump, who continues to soak up the bulk of the presidential spotlight.
During a stop in Utah over the weekend, Paul visited the controversial National Security Agency data facility in Bluffdale to deliver a lofty promise.
“When I become President, we’ll convert it into a Constitutional Center to study the 4th Amendment! Bulk data collection must end,” Paul said during a photo op at the facility.
While it’s highly unlikely that the $1.5 billion NSA data hub is going to become a constitutional library anytime soon, Paul’s fight against the spy agency’s bulk data surveillance is nothing new.
The Kentucky lawmaker raised his national profile significantly in spring 2013, at the height of public controversy over government spying, with a 12-hour filibuster of the Senate’s confirmation of CIA Director John Brennan.
During that speech, Paul rallied against everything from the U.S.’s drone policy to the NSA’s bulk collection of communications metadata. In a later filibuster, Paul attempted to block renewal of the Patriot Act. And though he was partially successful, lawmakers quickly replaced it with the similarly intrusive USA Freedom Act.
Paul, last year, filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration in an attempt to force the White House to stop the NSA’s bulk data collection via presidential order.
The lawsuit, he said at the time, wouldn’t be necessary if he were elected: “The president created this vast dragnet by executive order. And as president on Day 1, I would immediately end this unconstitutional surveillance.”
“I believe we can have liberty and security, and I will not compromise your liberty for a false sense of security,” he added later.
Paul is completely right that the most intrusive of the United States’ post-9/11 surveillance laws were created by presidential fiat and could be similarly dismantled. But barring his election (followed by what would surely become a fierce power struggle between a Paul White House and hawks in Congress), it isn’t likely that the NSA will face much further scrutiny.
Either way, Paul faces an uphill battle as he continues his anti-surveillance mission.
Just last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned an injunction against the government’s data collection, arguing that the plaintiffs couldn’t prove that their constitutional rights had been personally violated by the program.
Add to that the fact that Paul’s presidential opponents routinely accuse him of threatening national security for political gain with his ant-surveillances rhetoric, and his message becomes increasingly difficult to frame for mainstream GOP audiences.
And before Paul ever gets a chance to convince average Republicans that fighting behemoth government surveillance is a worthy cause, he faces the added challenge of remaining relevant as he and the rest of the GOP field continue to be overshadowed by Trump.
Paul, perhaps more than any of his fellow GOP hopefuls, has repeatedly said that he believes Trump would make a terrible president.
On Monday, Paul told Boston Herald Radio’s “Morning Meeting” that he believes a Trump nomination would lead to the worst GOP presidential defeat since Barry Goldwater’s ill-fated run against President Lyndon Johnson.
While Paul conceded that Trump’s massive polling lead is impressive, he said that the voter anger that has given rise to the businessman’s popularity would be better placed in a candidate with a solid record of advocating for smaller government.
“There is a lot of bluster and anger on Trump’s part, but a lot of his solutions are big government solutions,” Paul said. “I think eventually people are going to come to their senses and say, ‘Oh my God, I liked his angry vitriol. But I didn’t realize he was for gun control, Obamacare, increasing taxes and taking private property.’”
According to Paul, Trump’s positions on eminent domain ought to raise a major red flag for the small-government wing of the GOP.
“He has been a proponent of using eminent domain to take property from small property owners and use it to make business and make money for himself,” Paul said. “There was a case of a woman who had lived in a house for 30 years. He built a casino next door and when she wouldn’t sell, he used the government to take it from her.”
Paul, during a campaign stop on Saturday, borrowed Trump’s now-famous “make America great again” line and spun it to serve his small government message.
“I will spend every waking moment giving power to states and the people,” Paul said. I’m going to make America great again by leaving more money in your community.”
First, however, Paul needs to work on making his polling numbers great again. Real Clear Politics’ national average shows Paul polling at just 3.7 percent — behind Ben Carson (11 percent), Jeb Bush (9.7 percent), Ted Cruz (7.3 percent), Scott Walker (6.7 percent), Marco Rubio (6.3 percent), Carly Fiorina (5 percent), John Kasich (4.7 percent) and even Mike Huckabee (4.3) percent. Trump, by comparison, is holding strong at 25.7 percent.
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